HalleyAnna Finlay pulls her Gibson from the case. She sets the guitar in her lap. Her eyes smile.
“I grew up listening to people who play music in Texas,” says the youthful singer-songwriter, whose father Kent owns the legendary listening room Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas.
“I really love the traditional stuff that’s going on in East Nashville like Elizabeth Cook and Caitlin Rose — and Hayes Carll and Slaid Cleaves here in Austin. They embody the same traditional country that I like.”
Now the 26-year-old proves her point with an impromptu covers set. “If I needed you, would you come to me/Would you come to me and ease my pain,” she sings, opening with that Townes Van Zandt song as soft and sweet as summer rain.
HalleyAnna lights up our corner booth at South Austin’s Crow Bar for the next hour with more Van Zandt tunes, along with those written by Carll, Todd Snider and other influences. Several notice when dusk settles against her absolutely stunning take on the Willie Nelson classic “Crazy.” She simply sings like Nelson’s words were stamped on her heart at birth.
Her own lines shine even brighter when she delivers them. Evidence: The Country.
HalleyAnna’s superb debut collection triggers (“So Heavy”) and trundles (“Fast Train”) with effortless elegance. The album, which deftly spotlights her meeting point between Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris, should serve as an introduction to a skyward-bound emerging talent. High watermarks — particularly “Back in Your Arms Again” and “The Letter,” an unreleased heartbreaker she finishes our interview with at the Crow Bar — already show her growing exponentially sharp as a songwriter.
“Experience is what happens when you don’t get what you want, so songwriting makes me feel better,” she says. “Any time I’d go through a heartache growing up, my dad would say, ‘Well, you’ll get a good song out of it.’ Sure enough, I really did. You can’t write every single song about how somebody broke your heart, so some of the stuff I’ve done is more serious. ‘Back in Your Arms Again’ may sound like a song about somebody who dumped you, but it has a much deeper, eternal, death-related theme about meeting in the next life.”
- Brian T. Atkinson
HalleyAnna's a singular soul wise beyond her years. Clear evidence: Her new album HalleyAnna. The Central Texas resident's buoyant sophomore effort backs youthful edge ("Tattoo") and energy ("Out of the Blue") with a seasoned songwriter's elegance ("The Letter"). "Take a walk in my shoes with them worn our soles/I've walked in them for miles until I wore in these holes," she sings on the latter. "And I wouldn't trade for new ones, no, no/They got me this far and I'm ready to go."
HalleyAnna's deep Lone Star state roots wrap around each texture ("Playing Along") and phrase ("Walk Away"). "I grew up listening to people who play music in Texas," says the 26-year-old, whose father, Kent Finlay, owns the legendary San Marcos singer-songwriter listening room Cheatham Street Warehouse, birthplace for kindred spirits Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, Todd Snider and several others. "I really love the traditional stuff that's going on in East Nashville and here in Austin."
Tradition's important. HalleyAnna carries forward the spirit embodied at Cheatham Street for decades: Craft outweighs commerce. She writes, as Townes Van Zandt famously wrote, for the sake of the song. She answers her muse. Period.
"HalleyAnna takes a subtle approach to blowing people away with her music," says Grammy-winning producer Lloyd Maines (Dixie Chicks). "She writes meaningful lyrics and her singing and guitar playing deliver her songs in grand form." "Every song HalleyAnna writes or sings is great," ace songwriter Walt Wilkins says. "Her voice really sends me. She's sunshine in a beautiful package." In fact, few rays shine brighter.
Her words flow as naturally as sunlit barroom daydreams, independent spirits reaching skyward over and over throughout the new album. Consider "The Bee." "There's a voice out here calling me to face what I must face to see," she sings. "Not because of destiny just the chance for what will be, and that is free." "Any time I'd go through a heartache growing up, my dad would say, 'Well, you'll get a good song out of it,'" HalleyAnna says. "Sure enough, I really did." Her debut The Country (2011) suggested as much. Now, the new album confirms: HalleyAnna's singular songs effortlessly turn darkness into light.
"I was at the Finlay house when they brought HalleyAnna home from the hospital," Todd Snider says. "As a brother, it's been a joy to watch her grow into one of the most formidable songwriters of our time. She's like Hayes Carll but pretty."
HalleyAnna’s seamless “HalleyAnna” frequently tempers heart (“Out of the Blue”) with humor (“Tattoo”). The San Marcos resident, who performs Saturday at Threadgill’s, recently supported the new collection on tour with Todd Snider.“I was at the Finlay house when they brought HalleyAnna home from the hospital,” Snider says. “As a brother, it’s been a joy to watch her grow into one of the most formidable songwriters of our time. She’s like Hayes Carll but pretty.”
HalleyAnna says the dual themes on her new self-titled record focus on leaving and the life of a songwriter.
American-Statesman: Explain how the new album took shape.
HalleyAnna: I met (producer) Bill Chambers a couple years ago when he was playing with (daughter) Kasey (Chambers) and we talked about making a record together someday. It just happened to be the right time and place. We recorded at the Woodshed, across the street from my dad Kent Finlay’s venue, Cheatham Street Warehouse, in San Marcos. We recorded the whole thing live.
Did you purposely record live?
Well, our only intention was to make a record together. We had a limited amount of time, five or six days. So, I went over and played Bill the songs. We decided we were gonna do it like American country back in the day when you heard Hank Williams on the radio. It was very old school and everything was super easy with Bill. He was very enthusiastic. His whole thing is the Australian motto: “No worries.”
Does the album have a common lyrical theme?
Leaving. The first song is about not getting married, then one about not being completely committed and you go on to independence and solitude being easier but lonelier and then it morphs into “it’s time for me to go.” It ends with “Songwriter’s Prayer,” written by Todd Snider and my mom, Diana Hendricks, and Susanna Clark’s “San Antone Rose.” I’d say leaving and the life of a songwriter are themes.
How does this album represent your evolution since (2011’s) ‘The Country’?
I had my whole life to write the songs for “The Country” and I only had two years to write the songs for “HalleyAnna.” It reflects an older me. I’m always writing songs and I’ve seen more of the world. This record really gets straight down to what I’m doing and who I am and it just captures a moment.
Tell the story behind writing ‘Tattoo.’
That song came in a dream. I’ve always tried to not take life too seriously that I can’t have a good laugh. “Tattoo” is just a sweet love song that’s a little tongue-in-cheek like some of my favorite songwriters like John Prine and Hayes Carll. They write songs that are endearing and sweet but with a good sense of humor.
How did Cheatham Street shape your development as a writer?
I was a sponge for everything that was going on around me in Central Texas. I got to watch my dad work with songwriters like Adam Carroll and Slaid Cleaves and do music for a living in Texas, where it’s a respectable job, and watch other people like Terri Hendrix work really hard at doing what they want to do.
What are you looking forward to about the Threadgill’s show?
Threadgill’s is my home away from home. It’s a great place to play. This will be my first show back in Austin after touring with Todd and I can’t wait to see all my friends there and have a rocking good show.
HalleyAnna is a singer-songwriter based out of Austin, Texas. She has been playing guitar for more than a decade,and grew up singing in church, honky-tonks, and dancehalls to develop her sound and gain early exposure as a performer. HalleyAnna sounds like alt. country, folk, and Americana, influenced by artists such as Emmylou Harris, June Carter, and Hank Williams. We talked recently, and HalleyAnna answered some questions.
Who are your songwriting influences?
Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Hayes Carll, Kasey Chambers, Billy Joe Shaver, and most of all, my dad, Kent Finlay.
When and where was your first public performance?
When I was in the 2nd grade, I performed with my dad and my, sister Jenni, and brother, Sterling.
What was the first record or cd you purchased with your own money?
It was either Willie's Red Headed Stranger, or a Cake cd.
What was the first live concert you attended?
Either Todd Snider's ACL taping or a Jerry Jeff Walker picnic.
Which venue would you most like to play that you haven't yet/ and which is your favorite venue to play?
I would love to play the Cactus Cafe in Austin, Poodies and Cheatham St Warehouse are my favorites.
What is the best career advice you've been given, and by whom?
Gary Hickinbotham told me "Lose your accent." I was also given great advice by a close friend who recently passed away. John Fox told me "Follow your heart."
Who are you listening to now?
The Doug Sahm collection of mono singles.
What is your best story about life on the road?
Eating crawfish in Bryan, eating boudin in Tyler. We also had a scary road trip going to Memphis in a 200 dollar van. We had a blowout and lost chunks of tire. We had to drive back to Hillsboro to get it fixed. We visited the texas Music Museum and Willie's Place. The bad news is that Willie's Place is under new management. The good news is that we didn't die on the trip.
What recordings are available to the public and where can they be purchased?
"The Country", produced by Corby Schaub of the Ryan Bingham Band, and my self titled album, HalleyAnna, produced by Bill Chambers are both available in record stores, on Amazon, ITunes, CD Baby and Spotify.
When and where are you playing next?
You can also check my schedule at www.halleyanna.com or www.reverbnation.com/halleyanna
Like her older sister and brother, Jenni and Sterling, HalleyAnna Finlay grew up surrounded by songwriters and was pretty much destined from birth to follow a musical path in life. But unlike her siblings, her earliest childhood memories were not shaped inside the walls of Cheatham Street Warehouse. HalleyAnna was born in October 1986, and her parents, Kent and Diana, sold the music venue soon after in ’88. By the time the Finlays picked up where they left off in the Cheatham business at the very end of the ’90s, HalleyAnna was already creeping up on her teens.
Although HalleyAnna missed out on the experience of sleeping on pool tables, her wonder years were still rich with song. While her mother was working for a newspaper, her dad would juggle babysitting duties with songwriting sessions. Not that she minded; she recalls with fondness an afternoon playing in the park while her dad and Slaid Cleaves sat nearby writing “Don’t Tell Me,” which Cleaves recorded on his 1997 album, No Angel Knows. She also remembers the day Terri Hendrix visited her second-grade class at DeZavala Elementary, and feeling quite tickled with herself that she recognized one of the songs Hendrix played, “I Was a Seed,” as an Al Barlow original. “I was like, ‘I know the guy who wrote this song!’”
Along with all the songwriters in her life, HalleyAnna also grew up singing and playing guitar every Sunday at San Marcos’ First United Methodist Church. “That all kind of made music and songwriting something in my life that I just couldn’t live without,” says HalleyAnna, who started playing guitar at 11 (following a crack at fiddle) and later played saxophone in her high school jazz band. “It was habitual.” Consequently, by the time she started participating at Cheatham’s songwriters nights and opening shows there for artists like Monte Montgomery, Sisters Morales, and Hendrix at the ripe-old-age of 13, fear-of-performing-in-public wasn’t much of an obstacle.
“Stage fright doesn’t really occur to me,” she explains. “I value an important show, and if I’m blessed to be in front of people that come out to listen to great songwriters like Terri and Todd (Snider) and Slaid, it’s really important to me that I’m prepared and that inside I feel great. But I think that I just love playing music and I don’t really get nervous about it.”
That same confidence — further emboldened by another decade’s worth of experience under her belt — was on full display throughout her 2011 debut, The Country, which HalleyAnna recorded at Studio 1916 in nearby Kyle, Texas, with Corby Schaub and Kullen Fuchs. The songs on the album, most notably “Peace Is Lonely, Love is War” and the title track (co-written with childhood friend David Beck of Sons of Fathers, who recorded their own version of “The Country” on their own debut), revealed a mature, poetic wisdom beyond her young years. But it was HalleyAnna’s voice that really grabbed the listener’s attention. It’s an instrument as full of expression and gnarled grit as Lucinda Williams’, wrapped in a deceptively vulnerable, fetchingly pretty drawl suggestive of Iris DeMent on a whiskey bender.
As good as The Country was, HalleyAnna’s second album is even better. Recorded at the Cheatham Street Woodshed studio with visiting Aussie producer/guitarist Bill Chambers (father of Down Under Americana wonder Kasey Chambers), it’s a stone-cold beauty of a roots-folk-country record, as playful and quirky (“Tattoo,” “You Don’t Need Me”) as it is achingly plaintive and bittersweet (“Out of the Blue,” “Playing Along”). HalleyAnna wrote or co-wrote all but three of the album’s 11 songs; among the three covers is “Songwriter’s Prayer,” a previously unrecorded song that her mother wrote with family friend Todd Snider. “I found the lyrics in a box and was curious about it,” she explains. “They wrote that when I was just a baby, in ’87 or ’88, just sitting around the house.”
For The Country, HalleyAnna stepped outside of her comfort zone, letting her co-producers “take the reins” and show her the ropes of recording with a click track, scratch vocals, and overdubs. Although she enjoyed both the learning experience and the results, she opted to go in the opposite direction with Chambers this time around. “We did it all just natural and live to two-track, and it was really easy, just like a performance,” she says. “People worry that you can get a little bit of vocal bleed in the guitar or vice versa when you do it that way, but that didn’t happen — we got lucky.”
That more devil-may-care approach suits both the songs and HalleyAnna’s personality just fine. Maybe it’s a result of her early exposure to free-spirited misfits like Snider, or the carefree vibe that seems to permeate her native San Marcos, but there’s always a hint of unpredictability and impending mischief about HalleyAnna. It’s there when she just walks into a room or engages in casual conversation, and it magnifies exponentially when she sings or plays in front of an audience. In the Wildflowers, her on-again, off-again duo project with friend Ashley Monical, HalleyAnna proves the wild to Ashley’s flower, spiking their sweetly folky, harmony-laden sets with a shot of reckless abandon.
“I do feel like I’m an outlaw, in a certain way … and I want to be,” she acknowledges, albeit with a nonchalance that suggests a matter-of-fact sense of purpose as an independent artist more than bluster. “I don’t want to do things the traditional way. And as long as I can find people that like that unique mold that doesn’t fit in with anything else, I can keep playing and doing this for a living.” - Richard Skanse